Cairo and Riyadh Working to Stem Regional Unrest

5 MINS READFeb 24, 2011 | 21:56 GMT
ADAM JAN/AFP/Getty Images
A stream of meetings and messages relayed in recent days illustrate a concerted effort by Egyptian and Saudi leaders to advise embattled Arab regimes on how to contain unrest in their countries. Saudi Arabia and the United States, in particular, appear to be attempting to create a strategy in an attempt to contain Shiite disturbances and thus deny Iran an opportunity to destabilize its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf.
Fearing a contagion effect in the region, Egyptian and Saudi officials appear to be taking the lead in trying to advise embattled Arab regimes on how to contain unrest in their countries. Head of the newly created Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt and Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi sent letters Feb. 22 to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. According to a STRATFOR source in the Egyptian diplomatic corps, Tantawi's message to Saleh was very simple: Refrain from using extreme force against the demonstrators. The Yemeni opposition has kept to the streets for more than two weeks and became even more emboldened after Saleh authorized the use of deadly force by riot police and pro-government demonstrators began firing live ammunition into crowds outside Sanaa University, resulting in the deaths of two protesters late Feb. 22. Tantawi is recommending dealing more gently with the demonstrators to avoid having Saleh lose control over the situation. From the point of view of the Egyptian military, Yemen has already used the iron fist approach and it has not worked. As Tantawi counseled Saleh, by allowing demonstrations to take place and acting as the protector of the protesters while gradually parceling out concessions, the demonstrations could theoretically be defused. Notably, Yemen's state-run Saba news agency published a statement Feb. 24 saying Saleh has ordered his security forces to "protect the demonstrators" who are calling for him to resign, reflecting a possible shift in the manner in which the regime intends to deal with the protesters. According to the same source, Tantawi's letter to the Qatari leader asked the Qatari government to instruct Doha-based Al Jazeera to cover Egypt in a more constructive and benign manner, as Egypt's military council has taken steps in processing the demands of the protesters. The source claims that Qatar has responded favorably to the Egyptian request, satisfied that Mubarak has been removed, and is now growing concerned over a fledgling movement on Facebook calling for the overthrow of the Qatari emir. That the delivery of the Tantawi letters was publicized is telling of Egypt's confidence in its ability to contain its own unrest. Not only is the Egyptian military restoring order at home, but it is also assuming a leadership role in trying to contain unrest elsewhere in the region. That said, the Egyptian situation is a far cry from that of the one in Yemen. In Egypt, the military carefully managed a succession and actually used the demonstrations to oust Mubarak and thus preserve the regime. In Yemen, conversely, Saleh finds himself in an extraordinarily difficult situation, trying to manage the growing demands of both the political and student oppositions, retain vital tribal and army support, all while keeping a check on myriad security issues. These include the long-simmering al-Houthi rebellion in the north (where Iran could play a role in escalating tensions), a secessionist movement in the south, and the jihadist threat posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. While Egypt is playing its part in trying to contain regional unrest, the other pillar of Arab power, Saudi Arabia, is heading up its own crisis management effort in the Gulf Cooperation Council states. Riyadh is most concerned about the potential for Shiite unrest in Bahrain to expand into an Iranian-backed destabilization campaign in the Persian Gulf states with significant Shiite minorities — Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, in particular. Toward this end, Saudi King Abdullah, after returning home from Morocco following a three-month convalescence, met with Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa on Feb. 23 in Riyadh to discuss the steps forward in containing the Shiite opposition protests that have shaken the tiny island kingdom for more than a week and a half. According to a Saudi diplomatic source, the Saudis, like the Yemenis, advised King Hamad to allow the demonstrations to take place, refrain from using force and to pace reforms on Shiite integration. The source claims that the Saudis advised King Hamad to not only release Shiite political prisoners, but to also extend negotiations for as long as possible in order to gradually defuse the intensity of the demonstrations. At the same time, the Saudis want the Bahraini monarchy to refrain from offering any meaningful political concessions to the Shia, for fear of fueling Shiite demands in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern province. Meanwhile, Saudi Prince Maj. Gen. Fahd bin Turki bin Abdul-Aziz, commander of the paratroopers units and land special operations forces, led a delegation Feb. 20 to Muscat, Oman, on a visit that is reported to last for several days. Notably, Fahd bin Turki's visit to Muscat comes at the same time U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis, U.S. Special Operations Command head Adm. Eric Olson and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, are also in the Omani capital for meetings on regional security issues. British Prime Minister David Cameron also arrived in Muscat for a visit Feb. 23 as the first stop on a regional tour including Egypt and Kuwait. One of the main issues presumably being discussed among these officials is the threat of Iranian destabilization efforts in the Persian Gulf region. Fahd bin Turki is likely sharing his finding after having spent the past few months touring the Gulf Cooperation Council countries in an attempt to draw up a regional strategy among the Arab states to contain political unrest. Thus far, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have remained largely immune from significant political unrest, but considering the historic opportunity now being presented to Iran to sow conflict in its Arab neighborhood, the Saudi royals are now working overtime to try to keep these demonstrations in check.

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